Mandarin criterion shows bias against non-Chinese? Wrong, says original researchers

Lee says that Cent-GPS' conclusion about companies discriminating based on a candidate's language abilities in the job ads put out is not something that is as simple and straightforward. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Lee says that Cent-GPS' conclusion about companies discriminating based on a candidate's language abilities in the job ads put out is not something that is as simple and straightforward. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 ― Two senior Malaysian academics today took the Centre for Governance and Political Studies’ (Cent-GPS) to task for claiming employers demanding Mandarin proficiency to be a smokescreen to exclude non-Chinese candidates.

Lee Hwok Aun, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), and Economic Action Council member Muhammed Abdul Khalid, the authors of a similar job hunt survey six years ago that provided the model for Cent-GPS’ recent survey said the latter think tank’s conclusion was “wrong”.

“An added objective of their research is to investigate the effects of Mandarin requirement, to answer the vexing question whether jobs that stipulate proficiency in the language do so to exclude non-Chinese applicants.

“On this, Cent-GPS gets it wrong. They fail to compare interview prospects of applicants to jobs that stipulate Mandarin versus those that do not. When we do so with their data, we actually find that racial discrimination is less in jobs that require Mandarin,” Lee said in a statement.

He said there were fundamental errors in the Umno-linked group's study when addressing language requirements in job advertisements.

Lee, who was a lecturer in Universiti Malaya when he wrote the original study with Muhammed Abdul, pointed out that Cent-GPS' conclusion about companies discriminating based on a candidate's language abilities in the job ads put out is not something that is as simple and straightforward.

Using their own sample of companies to construct a profile of ownership and control, Lee and Muhammed Abdul found that unsurprisingly 35 per cent who required Mandarin fluency were owned by the Chinese, 22 per cent owned by foreigners and a surprising 10 per cent owned by Malays.

Cent-GPS on the other hand had tarred all companies who posted Mandarin-language requirement with the same brush by omitting company profile and conducting simple background check on the employers.

“Second, most of the evidence, and the underlying intuition, indicate that language requirements are probably legitimate. We varied the capabilities of applicants; hence, we ensured that some resumes stated Mandarin proficiency while others did not.

“We found that self-declared Mandarin proficiency gives an advantage to both Chinese and Malays. A Malay applicant who indicates fluency in Mandarin stands a better chance of being interviewed compared to a Malay who does not,” Lee said.

He added that the callback rates for interviews were higher for both, Malay and Indian job applicants who have an intermediary level of Mandarin language.

Using Cent-GPS disclosure that 10 per cent of the 547 jobs applied to posted Mandarin as a requirement, Lee and Muhammed Abdul calculated the callback rates for jobs that did not require the language proficiency.

Their study found that almost all applicants who are proficient in Mandarin had higher callback rates with the Indian-male getting more than threefold callbacks (up to 9.4 per cent from 3 per cent) and the Malay-male getting double (up to 15.1 per cent from 7.1 per cent).

“In many ways, language proficiency is a legitimate job requirement, but Malaysians need to flesh this out further, to arrive at a national consensus on when it is justifiably a hiring criterion and how the labour market can function more effectively and fairly in signalling job requirements to applicants.

“For instance, we could require job ads to furnish one to two sentences explaining why a language is required. It is better for such matters to be written in black and white, so they can be held to account, and monitored by public authorities.

“Issuing a blanket ban on language requirements in job ads, besides misdiagnosing the problem, also restricts the grounds to regulate practices, and potentially curtails the intermediary role of the job ad in reaching out to the applicant pool ― as well as sparing those who do not possess a skill the futile effort of applying to jobs that require that skill,” said Lee.

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